When we booked our Thailand trip, we added a few days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, because I figured as long as we were so close I couldn’t not see Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. I imagined that the temples would be the main draw of Siem Reap, and I’d mostly vibe with Thailand. TURNS OUT Siem Reap was my favorite part of the trip after Phang Nga Elephant Park.
First of all, Cambodia uses the American dollar as currency (along with their native riel) so the exchange rate was so obviously nuts. The amount of things that cost “one dollar one dollar one dollar” was surreal. An entire fresh pineapple or coconut, for example.
In Thailand and Cambodia we stuck to hotels rather than Air BnBs because hotels were SO cheap and felt easier to navigate with any sort of language barrier. Our little villa was part of the Angkor Spirit Palace – just close enough to the city and the temples to make tuk tuk rides unbelievably cheap, but not one of the giant resorts (which are a thing. I was not expecting giant resorts, and their proximity to the literal huts that locals lived in was especially wild). It came with hotel cats which is always a plus for me.
Angkor Spirit Palace set us up with a tuk tuk driver, Mao, for our stay. He picked us up from the super clean and lovely Siem Reap airport to begin, and from then on out we told him where we wanted to be and when and he arranged all of our rides. It was SILLY how easy this was, and getting to the city was only $2 from the hotel. Our temple DAY cost only $18.
Which brings me to the beginning of the temples! Our first night we climbed Phnom Bakheng (getting to the base via Mao, of course) to see the sunset. It was cloudy so our view was sadly obscured, but the temple itself was still an amazing introduction to the city’s insane history.
Before visiting the temples, you have to purchase a day pass. The sweet thing was that our pass for the next day included the evening before’s sunset visit since that’s such a popular trajectory. KEEP YOUR PASS ON YOU. If you lose this piece of paper you can’t get anywhere close to the main attractions. A lot of tourists had laminated lanyard pouches for them, which honestly was smart.
It’s also good to note that ladies, you must have your knees and shoulders covered. A long skirt or capris will do the trick. I opted for a skirt because of the heat, and carried around a “temple shawl” sheer scarf just in cast my shirts were ever suspect. See above coconut photo.
After the sunset viewing – as much as possible, at least – we hopped into the city for dinner. We told Mao to pick us up at 9pm since we had a 4:30am departure time the next day. More on that in a sec.
We found this totally beautiful French-Cambodian restaurant, Le Malraux, for dinner. I had forgotten that Cambodia was colonized by the French for a while. We vowed to try some traditional purely Cambodian food which we did all over the next day.
This was the first time we ate bread in two weeks. I loved the Thai rice and noodle-based meals, but MAN some fresh bread tastes amazing when you haven’t had it in fourteen days.
The next morning, Mao picked us up at 4:30am, bright eyed and bushy tailed for our sunrise Angkor Wat visit. Okay, so every tourist who ever goes to Siem Reap does a sunrise Angkor Wat visit, and you will feel like you are competing with all of them for a spot on the lake. But this phenomenon was 1000% worth the early hours and swarms of people. Once you get a good spot – I recommend the left bank of the lake, less populated with just as clear a view as the center – watching the sun rise is totally transfixing.
After sunrise, we explored Angkor Wat in the daylight like normal humans. Our day’s temple tour afterwords included Bayon, Phimeanakas, Thommanon, Baphuon, Ta Keo, and Ta Prohm. Angkor Spirit Palace recommends this route as their sunrise day tour, and we were thrilled with it. Chances are, your hotel in Siem Reap has a tour and driver available to recommend when you book your reservation, and Angkor Spirit Palace’s was significantly cheaper than any tour site packages. Plus, Mao packed us breakfast and a case of water (almost all of which we drank. It’s HOT in Cambodia in January).
I matched this local horse and thus bonded with it. Doug, wearing purple, did not match and the horse bit his foot.
My favorite temple was Ta Prohm, which a big tourist grab since Tomb Raider was filmed there. Another perk of our sunrise tour was that we still arrived early to the temples, beating the midday rush. The colors of Ta Prohm were so gorgeous, and the entire temple has been taken over by massive tree roots. It’s also huge, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get lost exploring which is exactly what I love to do.
It was about 2:00pm when we got back to the hotel, and we were exhausted. Lots of stairs on those temples! We napped HARD before going out to properly explore Siem Reap’s nightlife.
We opted for a traditional dinner of Lamok and Lap Khmer and went for a pub crawl on Pub Street (literally called “Pub Street,” lest we become confused as to where to find the pubs). Drinks, especially beer, were so cheap so we sampled quite a few places. W also indulged in rolled ice cream and taking in the night market sites. Siem Reap felt alive at night in a different way than Phuket. Yes, Siem Reap still housed many tourists, but it felt like the whole city was in on the fun and it wasn’t just a show for the tourists.
During our three days in Siem Reap I certainly felt like we accomplished our list of things to see, but I’d love to go back for another week to visit the outer temples and really become immersed in the city. Maybe I’ll have the guts to try fried cricket next time.